Google has emerged as one of the leading proponents of open source software development, as a user of open source technologies and as a developer of open source code. And as a funding source, Google’s open source commitment is well known.
Leading the open source charge at Google is Chris DiBona, open source program manager. DiBona was well known in the open source community as a former editor at the popular Slashdot Web site, as well as the co-editor of the landmark 1999 book called Open Sources, which discusses the open source revolution and included essays from Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Eric Raymond, Bob Young and other notables.
Google’s recent Summer of Code (SoC) initiative, which DiBona led, pumped $2 million into more than 400 different open source project spread across 41 organizations.
The company also recently donated $350,000 to Oregon and Portland State Universities in support of open source development. Google open source projects and efforts are documented at the Google Code Web site.
Internetnews.com recently had the opportunity to chat with DiBona about the SoC and Google’s view on open source development.
Q: At the beginning of the Summer of Code there was some chatter in Google’s public boards about participants having trouble with getting forms in and other such legal issues. Are some of those issues going to be addressed next year in a different way if you go ahead with another Summer of Code?
I don’t know if we’ll deal with them in a different way, but I think we’ll be a lot more clear.
We had 49 different countries represented in the student body that we had and some of the tax issues were pretty vexing for them. I think that next year will be a little easier. The fact of the matter is taxes are complicated. This isn’t a typical scholarship because it’s based on performances measured by an external body.
We have it structured very carefully so that we can include people in other countries and also not invalidate the visas of students here in the U.S. that took part. I think that next time should we do this it will be a lot clearer up front that this is kind of complicated.
Q: Were there any real standout projects from Summer of Code that just made you say “Wow”?
We had one student that wrote a gene homology database.
What that means is if you put in cancer or a certain kind of cancer you can find out what genes in the human genome express that disease. Or you can put in a gene and find out which proteins and genes it’s connected to.
This sort of thing had been done commercially before but nobody had ever done it in an open source way. It was one of those projects that we took and thought, “Well I don’t know if he can possibly succeed in the time frame to complete the project,” but he did and it is pretty remarkable.
The point of the program wasn’t just to create software that everyone could immediately use and that would change the world, but to create developers that later on could create software that could develop that kind of wonderful software. And we think it did that.
Q: Would you expect that Google will support SoC next year?
We’re certainly considering it.
Q: What was the experience like revising your landmark book Open Sources some six years after first publication?
It’s been in the works for awhile. We wanted to show how open source has changed over the last six years and how its ideas have reached into different realms.
For instance we have an article in there from a fellow who is applying the concepts behind open source into biology. It’s sort of like, here’s this core open source advance on how it’s been done over the last six years, and then there are also people who have learned from open source and what they’re doing, too.
Q: One of the most widely used open source security tools, Nessus, recently closed its source. There is now apparently a fork under development. Is that something that Google would help to support?
It’s not really our thing and it’s not a matter of commenting or not. Forks happen in open source software and I think it’s really healthy that they do. Google doesn’t have a horse in that race.
Q: So there isn’t going to be a Google open source license? It’s just the GPL and OSI-approved licenses for Google?
The OSI-approved slate is really the way to go. We don’t want to cause any market confusion around creating yet another license. I’ve been pretty cheered by Sun and Intel pulling back their particular licenses — and reducing the number of OSI-approved licenses. I think it’s a pretty good thing.
Q: Is there any chance that Google would ever use one of the new Microsoft Shared Source Licenses, such as the Community License, that may well be free software-compatible licenses?
I haven’t done a deep reading of them. If they’re OSI-approved I would consider them, but I would have to read them.
We’re really happy with the Apache Software Foundation license and I don’t think that it gets enough attention.
Q: Why is the Apache Software Foundation license good for Google?
It’s good for us when we want to release software because it gives a good amount of indemnification, which is what companies look for when they release software. When we use software externally, the demands that are put on us from a compliance point of view are pretty easy to track.
For instance, when we release code we often just want people to be able to use it and we don’t really care how. We just want them to see the code and get out of it what we do, and the ASF license lends itself quite well for that.
Q: What has your time at Google been like and has it been a positive experience for you to work at Google?
I love working at Google. It’s been fantastic. Not just the people I work with but the depth of resources.
It’s a remarkable environment for a computer scientist. Not just for the amazing code that there is, either. Some of the code that we have internally is just shockingly good.